Howard County parents ready for school wellness hearing

Howard County parents are ready to make their voices heard on the school system's proposed health and wellness policy.

The Board of Education is holding a public hearing on the new, half-implemented wellness through nutrition and physical activity policy Thursday, and delegates to the PTA Council of Howard County spent Monday night hammering out their position as to what aspects of the policy they would support, and what they thought still needed work.

Much has changed in the policy since it first went before the board last spring, the system's Executive Director of School Improvement and Administration Frank Eastham told parents. Last spring, instead of approving the policy, the board directed to staff to implement some aspects of the policy while others were still worked on.

At the start of the school year, breakfast programs were established at every school, elementary schools implemented a uniform, 30-minute daily recess (it had previously varied school-to-school), and food in student-accessible vending machines in the secondary schools had to meet Institute of Medicine standards.

Food also can't be given to students as a reward (like candy for doing well on a test) or taken away as punishment.

That was phase one, Eastham said. Phase two, which will officially be approved with the updated policy, has been tested in schools throughout the year, and includes the incorporation of more physical activity in instruction.

The school district has adopted nutritional guidelines from the Institute of Medicine, rather than crafting its own, in phase two, Eastham said.

The nutritional guidelines were points of contention when the policy was up for discussion last year — as they hadn't yet been established. Ekere Ekandem Olojola, a dietitian, was hired in December, as well, and one of her tasks was to have been creating those guidelines.

Instead, Eastham said, she will be an integral part of "phase three," or the ongoing implementation of the policy after its approval.

Phase three includes the ongoing study of recess practices, physical education, intramurals, the sale of food after school and determining exactly when the school day ends, which would dictate when PTAs and boosters could start selling concessions.

While there is not an official "end" to the school day, a suggested rule based on federal guidelines is that a school day lasts from 12:01 a.m. on a school day to 30 minutes after the last bell.

Board members last month said they would prefer having a definitive end to the school day in the policy when it's voted on in April, and Eastham said a time would be included in the policy for the vote, which parents agreed with.

"I would be more comfortable knowing what the definition is in the policy, as opposed to leaving it up as an amorphous decision," PTA Council President Christina Delmont-Small said.

However, if a school day starts at 12:01 a.m., that create problems for after-prom events held at high schools where, Delmont-Small said, "the kids probably aren't eating tofu."

But Kelli Midgley, the new Howard County Education Association liaison for the PTA Council, said in some instances, proms are Thursday nights following a half-day or professional development day. With Friday also usually being a professional development day — and thus not a school day — after-prom events wouldn't necessarily have to adhere to the IOM nutritional guidelines.

The PTA Council is also in favor of parent input on a new nutrition advisory committee, and they supported nutritional information for a la carte items be made more accessible to the public.

A la carte items are a huge seller for students, parents said, with about $1 million in revenue for the system (50 percent of that coming from high school students).

"Knowing that healthier food costs more, they're going to make less (if higher nutritional standards are adopted)," said parent Amy Churilla. "They're going to have to figure something else out."

There was also concern about a possible contradiction in policy wording, which allows the principal to hold one celebration a month, but doesn't allow candy in the schools, which parents worried would mean an end to traditional holiday celebrations with junk food.

"This is the parents' prerogative," said Tonya Tiffany. "This is just annoying; a celebration always has food."

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